"Great Writers." EDITED BY PROFESSOR ERIC S. ROBERTSON, M.A.
* * * * *
LIFE OF MILTON.
RICHARD GARNETT, LL.D.
LONDON WALTER SCOTT, 24, WARWICK LANE 1890 (All rights reserved.)
The number of miniature "Lives" of Milton is great; great also is the merit of some of them. With one exception, nevertheless, they are all dismissed to the shelf by the publication of Professor Masson's monumental and authoritative biography, without perpetual reference to which no satisfactory memoir can henceforth be composed. One recent biography has enjoyed this advantage. Its author, the late Mark Pattison, wanted neither this nor any other qualification except a keener sense of the importance of the religious and political controversies of Milton's time. His indifference to matters so momentous in Milton's own estimation has, in our opinion, vitiated his conception of his hero, who is represented as persistently yielding to party what was meant for mankind. We think, on the contrary, that such a mere man of letters as Pattison wishes that Milton had been, could never have produced a "Paradise Lost." If this view is well-founded, there is not only room but need for yet another miniature "Life of Milton," notwithstanding the intellectual subtlety and scholarly refinement which render Pattison's memorable. It should be noted that the recent German biography by Stern, if adding little to Professor Masson's facts, contributes much valuable literary illustration; and that Keighley's analysis of Milton's opinions occupies a position of its own, of which no subsequent biographical discoveries can deprive it. The present writer has further to express his deep obligations to Professor Masson for his great kindness in reading and remarking upon the proofs—not thereby rendering himself responsible for anything in these pages; and also to the helpful friend who has provided him with an index.
CHAPTER I. 11
Milton born in Bread Street, Cheapside, December 9, 1608; condition of English literature at his birth; part in its development assigned to him; materials available for his biography; his ancestry; his father; influences that surrounded his boyhood; enters St. Paul's School, 1620; distinguished for compositions in prose and verse; matriculates at Cambridge, 1625; condition of the University at the period; his misunderstandings with his tutor; graduates B.A., 1629, M.A., 1632; his relations with the University; declines to take orders or follow a profession; his first poems; retires to Horton, in Buckinghamshire, where his father had settled, 1632
CHAPTER II. 35
Horton, its scenery and associations with Milton; Milton's studies and poetical aspirations; exceptional nature of his poetical development; his Latin poems; "Arcades" and "Comus" composed and represented at the instance of Henry Lawes, 1633 and 1634; "Comus" printed in 1637; Sir Henry Wootton's opinion of it; "Lycidas" written in the same year, on occasion of the death of Edward King; published in 1638; criticism on "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," "Lycidas" and "Comus"; Milton's departure for Italy, April, 1638.
CHAPTER III. 57
State of Italy at the period of Milton's visit; his acquaintance with Italian literati at Florence; visit to Galileo; at Rome and Naples; returns to England, July, 1639; settles in St. Bride's Churchyard, and devotes himself to the education of his nephews; his elegy on his friend Diodati; removes to Aldersgate Street, 1640; his pamphlets on ecclesiastical affairs, 1641 and 1642; his tract on Education his "Areopagitica," November, 1644; attacks the Presbyterians.
CHAPTER IV. 83
Milton as a Parliamentarian; his sonnet, "When the Assault was intended to the City," November, 1642; goes on a visit to the Powell family in Oxfordshire, and returns with Mary Powell as his wife, May and June, 1643; his domestic unhappiness; Mary Milton leaves him, and refuses to return, July to September, 1643; publication of his "Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce," August, 1643, and February, 1644; his father comes to live with him; he takes additional pupils; his system of education; he courts the daughter of Dr. Davis; his wife, alarmed, returns, and is reconciled to him, August, 1645; he removes to the Barbican, September, 1645; publication of his collected poems, January, 1646; he receives his wife's relatives under his roof; death of his father, March, 1647; he writes "The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates," February, 1649; becomes Latin Secretary to the Commonwealth, March, 1649.
CHAPTER V. 104
Milton's duties as Latin Secretary; he drafts manifesto on the state of Ireland; occasionally employed as licenser of the press; commissioned to answer "Eikon Basilike"; controversy on the authorship of this work; Milton's "Eikonoklastes" published, October, 1649; Salmasius and his "Defensio Regia pro Carolo I."; Milton undertakes to answer Salmasius, February, 1650; publication of his "Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio," March, 1651; character and complete controversial success of this work; Milton becomes totally blind, March, 1652; his wife dies, leaving him three daughters, May, 1652; his controversy with Morus and other defenders of Salmasius, 1652-1655; his characters of the eminent men of the Commonwealth; adheres to Cromwell; his views on politics; general character of his official writings: his marriage to Elizabeth Woodcock, and death of his wife, November, 1656-March, 1658; his nephews; his friends and recreations.
CHAPTER VI. 128
Milton's poetical projects after his return from Italy; drafts of "Paradise Lost" among them; the poem originally designed as a masque or miracle-play; commenced as an epic in 1658; its composition speedily interrupted by ecclesiastical and political controversies; Milton's "Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes," and "Considerations on the likeliest means to remove Hirelings out of the Church"; Royalist reaction in the winter of 1659-60; Milton writes his "Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth"; conceals himself in anticipation of the Restoration, May 7, 1660; his writings ordered to be burned by the hangman, June 16; escapes proscription, nevertheless; arrested by the Serjeant-at-Arms, but released by order of the Commons, December 15; removes to Holborn; his pecuniary losses and misfortunes; the undutiful behaviour of his daughters; marries Elizabeth Minshull, February, 1663; lives successively in Jewin Street and in Artillery Walk, Bunhill Fields; particulars of his private life; "Paradise Lost" completed in or about 1663; agreement for its publication with Samuel Symmons; difficulties with the licenser; poem published in August, 1667.
CHAPTER VII. 152
Place of "Paradise Lost" among the great epics of the world; not rendered obsolete by changes in belief; the inevitable defects of its plan compensated by the poet's vital relation to the religion of his age; Milton's conception of the physical universe; his theology; magnificence of his poetry; his similes; his descriptions of Paradise; inevitable falling off of the later books; minor critical objections mostly groundless; his diction; his indebtedness to other poets for thoughts as well as phrases; this is not plagiarism; his versification; his Satan compared with Calderon's Lucifer; plan of his epic, whether in any way suggested by Andreini, Vondel, or Ochino; his majestic and unique position in English poetry.
CHAPTER VIII. 173
Milton's migration to Chalfont St. Giles to escape the plague in London, July, 1665; subject of "Paradise Regained" suggested to him by the Quaker Ellwood; his losses by the Great Fire, 1666; first edition of "Paradise Lost" entirely sold by April, 1669; "Paradise Regained" and "Samson Agonistes" published, 1671; criticism on these poems; Samson partly a personification of Milton himself, partly of the English people; Milton's life in Bunhill Fields; his daughters live apart from him; Dryden adapts "Paradise Lost" as an opera; Milton's "History of Britain," 1670; second editions of his poems, 1673, and of "Paradise Lost," 1674; his "Treatise on Christian Doctrine"; fate of the manuscript; Milton's mature religious opinions; his death and burial, 1674; subsequent history of his widow and descendants; his personal character.
LIFE OF MILTON.
John Milton was born on December 9, 1608, when Shakespeare had lately produced "Antony and Cleopatra," when Bacon was writing his "Wisdom of the Ancients" and Ralegh his "History of the World," when the English Bible was hastening into print; when, nevertheless, in the opinion of most foreigners and many natives, England was intellectually unpolished, and her literature almost barbarous.
The preposterousness of this judgment as a whole must not blind us to the fragment of truth which it included. England's literature was, in many respects, very imperfect and chaotic. Her "singing masons" had already built her "roofs of gold"; Hooker and one or two other great prose-writers stood like towers: but the less exalted portions of the edifice were still half hewn. Some literatures, like the Latin and the French, rise gradually to the crest of their perfection; others, like the Greek and the English, place themselves almost from the first on their loftiest pinnacle, leaving vast gaps to be subsequently filled in. Homer was not less the supreme poet because history was for him literally an old song, because he would have lacked understanding for Plato and relish for Aristophanes. Nor were Shakespeare and the translators of the Bible less at the head of European literature because they must have failed as conspicuously as Homer would have failed in all things save those to which they had a call, which chanced to be the greatest. Literature, however, cannot remain isolated at such altitudes, it must expand or perish. As Homer's epic passed through Pindar and the lyrical poets into drama history and philosophy, continually fitting itself more and more to become an instrument in the ordinary affairs of life, so it was needful that English lettered discourse should become popular and pliant, a power in the State as well as in the study. The magnitude of the change, from the time when the palm of popularity decorated Sidney's "Arcadia" to that when it adorned Defoe and Bunyan, would impress us even more powerfully if the interval were not engrossed by a colossal figure, the last of the old school in the erudite magnificence of his style in prose and verse; the first of the new, inasmuch as English poetry, hitherto romantic, became in his hands classical. This "splendid bridge from the old world to the new," as Gibbon has been called in a different connection, was John Milton: whose character and life-work, carefully analyzed, resolve themselves into pairs of equally vivid contrasts. A stern Puritan, he is none the less a freethinker in the highest and best sense of the term. The recipient of direct poetical inspiration in a measure vouchsafed to few, he notwithstanding studies to make himself a poet; writes little until no other occupation than writing remains to him; and, in general, while exhibiting even more than the usual confidence, shows less than the usual exultation and affluence of conscious genius. Professing to recognize his life's work in poetry, he nevertheless suffers himself to be diverted for many a long year into political and theological controversy, to the scandal and compassion of one of his most competent and attached biographers. Whether this biographer is right or wrong, is a most interesting subject for discussion. We deem him wrong, and shall not cease to reiterate that Milton would not have been Milton if he could have forgotten the citizen in the man of letters. Happy, at all events, it is that this and similar problems occupy in Milton's life the space which too frequently has to be spent upon the removal of misconception, or the refutation of calumny. Little of a sordid sort disturbs the sentiment of solemn reverence with which, more even than Shakespeare's, his life is approached by his countrymen; a feeling doubtless mainly due to the sacred nature of his principal theme, but equally merited by the religious consecration of his whole existence. It is the easier for the biographer to maintain this reverential attitude, inasmuch as the prayer of Agur has been fulfilled in him, he has been given neither poverty nor riches. He is not called upon to deal with an enormous mass of material, too extensive to arrange, yet too important to neglect. Nor is he, like Shakespeare's biographer, reduced to choose between the starvation of nescience and the windy diet of conjecture. If a humbling thought intrudes, it is how largely he is indebted to a devoted diligence he never could have emulated; how painfully Professor Masson's successors must resemble the Turk who builds his cabin out of Grecian or Roman ruins.
Milton's genealogy has taxed the zeal and acumen of many investigators. He himself merely claims a respectable ancestry (ex genere honesto). His nephew Phillips professed to have come upon the root of the family tree at Great Milton, in Oxfordshire, where tombs attested the residence of the clan, and tradition its proscription and impoverishment in the Wars of the Roses. Monuments, station, and confiscation have vanished before the scrutiny of the Rev. Joseph Hunter; it can only be safely concluded that Milton's ancestors dwelt in or near the village of Holton, by Shotover Forest, in Oxfordshire, and that their rank in life was probably that of yeomen. Notwithstanding Aubrey's statement that Milton's grandfather's name was John, Mr. Hyde Clarke's researches in the registers of the Scriveners' Company have proved that Mr. Hunter and Professor Masson were right in identifying him with Richard Milton, of Stanton St. John, near Holton; and Professor Masson has traced the family a generation further back to Henry Milton, whose will, dated November 21, 1558, attests a condition of plain comfort, nearer poverty than riches. Henry Milton's goods at his death were inventoried at L6 19s.; when his widow's will is proved, two years afterwards, the estimate is L7 4s. 4d. Richard, his son, is stated, but not proved, to have been an under-ranger of Shotover Forest. He appears to have married a widow named Jeffrey, whose maiden name had been Haughton, and who had some connection with a Cheshire family of station. He would also seem to have improved his circumstances by the match, which may account for the superior education of his son John, whose birth is fixed by an affidavit to 1562 or 1563. Aubrey, indeed, next to Phillips and Milton himself, the chief contemporary authority, says that he was for a time at Christ Church, Oxford—a statement in itself improbable, but slightly confirmed by his apparent acquaintance with Latin, and the family tradition that his course of life was diverted by a quarrel with his father. Queen Mary's stakes and faggots had not affected Richard Milton as they affected most Englishmen. Though churchwarden in 1582, he must have continued to adhere to the ancient faith, for he was twice fined for recusancy in 1601, which lends credit to the statement that his son was cast off by him for Protestantism. "Found him reading the Bible in his chamber," says Aubrey, who adds that the younger Milton never was a scrivener's apprentice; but this is shown to be an error by Mr. Hyde Clarke's discovery of his admission to the Scriveners' Company in 1599, where he is stated to have been apprentice to James Colborn. Colborn himself had been only four years in business, instead of the seven which would usually be required for an apprentice to serve out his indenture—which suggests that some formalities may have been dispensed with on account of John Milton's age. A scrivener was a kind of cross between an attorney and a law stationer, whose principal business was the preparation of deeds, "to be well and truly done after my learning, skill, and science," and with due regard to the interests of more exalted personages. "Neither for haste nor covetousness I shall take upon me to make any deed whereof I have not cunning, without good advice and information of counsel." Such a calling offered excellent opportunities for investments; and John Milton, a man of strict integrity and frugality, came to possess a "plentiful estate." Among his possessions was the house in Bread Street destroyed in the Great Fire. The tenement where the poet was born, being a shop, required a sign, for which he chose The Spread Eagle, either from the crest of such among the Miltons as had a right to bear arms, among whom he may have reckoned himself; or as the device of the Scriveners' Company. He had been married about 1600 to a lady whose name has been but lately ascertained to have been Sarah Jeffrey. John Milton the younger was the third of six children, only three of whom survived infancy. He grew up between a sister, Anne, several years older, and a brother, Christopher, seven years younger than himself.
Milton's birth and nurture were thus in the centre of London; but the London of that day had not half the population of the Liverpool of ours. Even now the fragrance of the hay in far-off meadows may be inhaled in Bread Street on a balmy summer's night; then the meadows were near the doors, and the undefiled sky was reflected by an unpolluted stream. There seems no reason to conclude that Milton, in his early boyhood, enjoyed any further opportunities of resort to rural scenery than the vicinity of London could afford; but if the city is his native element, natural beauty never appeals to him in vain. Yet the influences which moulded his childhood must have been rather moral and intellectual than merely natural:—
"The starlight smile of children, the sweet looks Of women, the fair breast from which I fed,"
played a greater part in the education of this poet than
"The murmur of the unreposing brooks, And the green light which, shifting overhead, Some tangled bower of vines around me shed, The shells on the sea-sand, and the wild flowers."
Paramount to all other influences must have been the character of his father, a "mute" but by no means an "inglorious" Milton, the preface and foreshadowing of the son. His great step in life had set the son the example from which the latter never swerved, and from him the younger Milton derived not only the independence of thought which was to lead him into moral and social heresy, and the fidelity to principle which was to make him the Abdiel of the Commonwealth, but no mean share of his poetical faculty also. His mastery of verbal harmony was but a new phase of his father's mastery of music, which he himself recognizes as the complement of his own poetical gift:—
"Ipse volens Phoebus se dispertire duobus, Altera dona mihi, dedit altera dona parenti."
As a composer, the circumspect, and, as many no doubt thought prosaic scrivener, took rank among the best of his day. One of his compositions, now lost, was rewarded with a gold medal by a Polish prince (Aubrey says the Landgrave of Hesse), and he appears among the contributors to The Triumphs of Oriana, a set of twenty-five madrigals composed in honour of Queen Elizabeth. "The Teares and Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soule"—dolorous sacred songs, Professor Masson calls them—were, according to their editor, the production of "famous artists," among whom Byrd, Bull, Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, certainly figure, and three of them were composed by the elder Milton. He also harmonized the Norwich and York psalm tunes, which were adapted to six of the Psalms in Ravenscroft's Collection. Such performance bespeaks not only musical accomplishment, but a refined nature; and we may well believe that Milton's love of learning, as well as his love of music, was hereditary in its origin, and fostered by his contact with his father. Aubrey distinctly affirms that Milton's skill on the organ was directly imparted to him by his father, and there would be nothing surprising if the first rudiments of knowledge were also instilled by him. Poetry he may have taught by precept, but the one extant specimen of his Muse is enough to prove that he could never have taught it by example.
We have therefore to picture Milton growing up in a narrow street amid a strict Puritan household, but not secluded from the influences of nature or uncheered by melodious recreations; and tenderly watched over by exemplary parents—a mother noted, he tells us, for her charities among her neighbours, and a father who had discerned his promise from the very first. Given this perception in the head of a religious household, it almost followed in that age that the future poet should receive the education of a divine. Happily, the sacerdotal caste had ceased to exist, and the education of a clergyman meant not that of a priest, but that of a scholar. Milton was instructed daily, he says, both at grammar schools and under private masters, "as my age would suffer," he adds, in acknowledgment of his father's considerateness. Like Disraeli two centuries afterwards (perhaps the single point of resemblance), he went for schooling to a Nonconformist in Essex, "who," says Aubrey, "cut his hair short." His own hair? or his pupil's? queries Biography. We boldly reply, Both. Undoubtedly Milton's hair is short in the miniature painted of him at the age of ten by, as is believed, Cornelius Jansen. A thoughtful little face, that of a well-nurtured, towardly boy; lacking the poetry and spirituality of the portrait of eleven years later, where the long hair flows down upon the ruff.
After leaving his Essex pedagogue, Milton came under the private tuition of Thomas Young, a Scotchman from St. Andrews, who afterwards rose to be master of Jesus College, Cambridge. It would appear from the elegies subsequently addressed to him by his pupil that he first taught Milton to write Latin verse. This instruction was no doubt intended to be preliminary to the youth's entrance at St. Paul's School, where he must have been admitted by 1620 at the latest.
At the time of Milton's entry, St. Paul's stood high among the schools of the metropolis, competing with Merchant Taylors', Westminster, and the now extinct St. Anthony's. The headmaster, Dr. Gill, was an admirable scholar, though, as Aubrey records, "he had his whipping fits." His fitful severity was probably more tolerable than the systematic cruelty of his predecessor Mulcaster (Spenser's schoolmaster when he presided over Merchant Taylors'), of whom Fuller approvingly records: "Atropos might be persuaded to pity as soon as he to pardon where he found just fault. The prayers of cockering mothers prevailed with him as much as the requests of indulgent fathers, rather increasing than mitigating his severity on their offending children." Milton's father, though by no means "cockering," would not have tolerated such discipline, and the passionate ardour with which Milton threw himself into the studious life of the school is the best proof that he was exempt from tyranny. "From the twelfth year of my age," he says, "I scarcely ever went from my lessons to bed before midnight." The ordinary school tasks cannot have exacted so much time from so gifted a boy: he must have read largely outside the regular curriculum, and probably he practised himself diligently in Latin verse. For this he would have the prompting, and perhaps the aid, of the younger Gill, assistant to his father, who, while at the University, had especially distinguished himself by his skill in versification. Gill must also have been a man of letters, affable and communicative, for Milton in after-years reminds him of their "almost constant conversations," and declares that he had never left his company without a manifest accession of literary knowledge. The Latin school exercises have perished, but two English productions of the period, paraphrases of Psalms executed at fifteen, remain to attest the boy's proficiency in contemporary English literature. Some of the unconscious borrowings attributed to him are probably mere coincidences, but there is still enough to evince acquaintance with "Sylvester, Spenser, Drummond, Drayton, Chaucer, Fairfax, and Buchanan." The literary merit of these versions seems to us to have been underrated. There may be no individual phrase beyond the compass of an apt and sensitive boy with a turn for verse-making; but the general tone is masculine and emphatic. There is not much to say, but what is said is delivered with a "large utterance," prophetic of the "os magna soniturum," and justifying his own report of his youthful promise:—"It was found that whether aught was imposed me by them that had the overlooking, or betaken to of mine own choice, in English or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly by this latter, the style, by certain vital signs it had, was likely to live."
Among the incidents of Milton's life at St. Paul's School should not be forgotten his friendship with Charles Diodati, the son of a Genevese physician settled in England, whose father had been exiled from Italy for his Protestantism. A friendship memorable not only as Milton's tenderest and his first, but as one which quickened his instinctive love of Italian literature, enhanced the pleasure, if it did not suggest the undertaking, of his Italian pilgrimage, and doubtless helped to inspire the execration which he launched in after years against the slayers of the Vaudois. The Italian language is named by him among three which, about the time of his migration to the University, he had added to the classical and the vernacular, the other two being French and Hebrew. It has been remarked, however, that his use of "Penseroso," incorrect both in orthography and signification, shows that prior to his visit to Italy he was unacquainted with the niceties of the language. He entered as "a lesser pensioner" at Christ's College, Cambridge, on February 12, 1625; the greatest poetic name in an University roll already including Spenser, and destined to include Dryden, Gray, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Tennyson. Why Oxford was not preferred has been much debated. The father may have taken advice from the younger Gill, whose Liberalism had got him into trouble at that University. He may also have been unwilling to place his son in the neighbourhood of his estranged relatives. Shortly before Milton's matriculation his sister had married Mr. Edward Phillips, of the office of the Clerk of the Crown, now abolished, then charged with the issue of Parliamentary and judicial writs. From this marriage were to spring the young men who were to find an instructor in Milton, as he in one of them a biographer.
The external aspect of Milton's Cambridge is probably not ill represented by Lyne's coloured map of half a century earlier, now exhibited in the King's Library at the British Museum. Piles of stately architecture, from King's College Chapel downward, tower all about, over narrow, tortuous, pebble-paved streets, bordered with diminutive, white-fronted, red-tiled dwellings, mere dolls' houses in comparison. So modest, however, is the chartographer's standard, that a flowery Latin inscription assures the men of Cambridge they need but divert Trumpington Brook into Clare Ditch to render their town as elegant as any in the universe. Sheep and swine perambulate the environs, and green spaces are interspersed among the colleges, sparsely set with trees, so pollarded as to justify Milton's taunt when in an ill-humour with his university:—
"Nuda nec arva placent, umbrasque negantia molles, Quam male Phoebicolis convenit ille locus!"
His own college stands conspicuous at the meeting of three ways, aptly suggestive of Hecate and infernal things. Its spiritual and intellectual physiognomy, and that of the university in general, must be learned from the exhaustive pages of Professor Masson. A book unpublished when he wrote, Ball's life of Dr. John Preston, Master of Emmanuel, vestige of an entire continent of submerged Puritanism, also contributes much to the appreciation of the place and time. We can here but briefly characterize the University as an institution undergoing modification, rather by the decay of the old than by the intrusion of the new. The revolution by which mathematics became the principal instrument of culture was still to be deferred forty years. Milton, who tells us that he delighted in mathematics, might have been nearly ignorant of that subject if he pleased, and hardly could become proficient in it by the help of his Alma Mater. The scholastic philosophy, however, still reigned. But even here tradition was shaky and undermined; and in matters of discipline the rigid code which nominally governed the University was practically much relaxed. The teaching staff was respectable in character and ability, including many future bishops. But while the academical credentials of the tutors were unimpeachable, perhaps not one among them all could show a commission from the Spirit. No one then at Cambridge seems to have been in the least degree capable of arousing enthusiasm. It might not indeed have been easy for a Newman or a Green to captivate the independent soul of Milton, even at this susceptible period of his life; failing any approach to such external influence, he would be likely to leave Cambridge the same man as he entered it. Ere, indeed, he had completed a year's residence, his studies were interrupted by a temporary rupture with the University, probably attributable to his having been at first placed under an uncongenial tutor. William Chappell was an Arminian and a tool of Laud, who afterwards procured him preferment in Ireland, and, as Professor Masson judges from his treatise on homiletics, "a man of dry, meagre nature." His relations with such a pupil could not well be harmonious; and Aubrey charges him with unkindness, a vague accusation rendered tangible by the interlined gloss, "Whipt him." Hence the legend, so dear to Johnson, that Milton was the last man to be flogged at college. But Aubrey can hardly mean anything more than that Chappell on some occasion struck or beat his pupil, and this interpretation is supported by Milton's verses to Diodati, written in the spring of 1626, in which, while acknowledging that he had been directed to withdraw from Cambridge ("nec dudum vetiti me laris angit amor") he expresses his intention of speedily returning:—
"Stat quoque juncosas Cami remeare paludes, Atque iterum raucae murmur adire scholae."
A short rustication would be just the notice the University would be likely to take of the conduct of a pupil who had been engaged in a scuffle with his tutor, in which the fault was not wholly or chiefly his. Formal corporal punishment would have rendered rustication unnecessary. That Milton was not thought wholly in the wrong appears from his not having been mulcted of a term's residence, his absence notwithstanding, and from the still more significant fact that Chappell lost his pupil. His successor was Nathaniel Tovey, in whom his patroness, the Countess of Bedford, had discerned "excellent talent." What Milton thought of him there is nothing to show.
This temporary interruption of the smoothness of Milton's University life occurred, as has been seen, quite early in its course. Had it indeed implied a stigma upon him or the University, the blot would in either case have been effaced by the perfect regularity of his subsequent career. He went steadily through the academic course, which to attain the degree of Master of Arts, then required seven years' residence. He graduated as Bachelor at the proper time, March, 1629, and proceeded Master in July, 1632. His general relations with the University during the period may be gathered partly from his own account in after years, when perhaps he in some degree "confounded the present feelings with the past," partly from a remarkable passage in one of his academical exercises, fortunately preserved to us, the importance of which was first discerned by his editor and biographer Mitford. Professor Masson, however, ascertained the date, which is all important. We must picture Milton "affable, erect, and manly," as Wood describes him, speaking from a low pulpit in the hall of Christ's College, to an audience of various standing, from grave doctors to skittish undergraduates, with most of whom he was in daily intercourse. The term is the summer of 1628, about nine months before his graduation; the words were Latin, but we resort to the version of Professor Masson:—
"Then also there drew and invited me, in no ordinary degree, to undertake this part your very recently discovered graciousness to me. For when, some few months ago, I was about to perform an oratorical office before you, and was under the impression that any lucubrations whatsoever of mine would be the reverse of agreeable to you, and would have more merciful judges in Aeacus and Minos than almost any of you would prove, truly, beyond my fancy, beyond my hope if I had any, they were, as I heard, nay, as I myself felt, received with the not ordinary applause of all—yea, of those who at other times were, on account of disagreements in our studies, altogether of an angry and unfriendly spirit towards me. A generous mode of exercising rivalry this, and not unworthy of a royal breast, if, when friendship itself is wont often to misconstrue much that is blamelessly done, yet then sharp and hostile enmity did not grudge to interpret much that was perchance erroneous, and not a little, doubtless, that was unskilfully said, more clemently than I merited."
It is sufficiently manifest from this that after two years' residence Milton had incurred much anger and unpopularity "on account of disagreements in our studies," which can scarcely mean anything else than his disapprobation of the University system. Notwithstanding this he had been received on a former occasion with unexpected favour, and on the present is able to say, "I triumph as one placed among the stars that so many men, eminent for erudition, and nearly the whole University have flocked hither." We have thus a miniature history of Milton's connection with his Alma Mater. We see him giving offence by the freedom of his strictures on the established practices, and misliking them so much as to write in 1642, "Which [University] as in the time of her better health and mine own younger judgment, I never greatly admired, so now much less." But, on the other hand, we see his intellectual revolt overlooked on account of his unimpeachable conduct and his brilliant talents, and himself selected to represent his college on an occasion when an able representative was indispensable. Cambridge had all imaginable complacency in the scholar, it was towards the reformer that she assumed, as afterwards towards Wordsworth, the attitude of
"Blind Authority beating with his staff The child that would have led him."
The University and Milton made a practical covenant like Frederick the Great and his subjects: she did what she pleased, and he thought what he pleased. In sharp contrast with his failure to influence her educational methods is "that more than ordinary respect which I found above any of my equals at the hands of those courteous and learned men, the Fellows of that College wherein I spent seven years; who, at my parting, after I had taken two degrees, as the manner is, signified many ways how much better it would content them that I would stay; as by many letters full of kindness and loving respect, both before that time and long after, I was assured of their singular good affection toward me." It may be added here that his comeliness and his chastity gained him the appellation of "Lady" from his fellow collegians: and the rooms at Christ's alleged to have been his are still pointed out as deserving the veneration of poets in any event; for whether Milton sacrificed to Apollo in them or not, it is certain that in them Wordsworth sacrificed to Bacchus.
For Milton's own sake and ours his departure from the University was the best thing that could have happened to him. It saved him from wasting his time in instructing others when he ought to be instructing himself. From the point of view of advantage to the University, it is perhaps the most signal instance of the mischief of strictly clerical fellowships, now happily things of the past. Only one fellowship at Christ's was tenable by a layman: to continue in academical society, therefore, he must have taken orders. Such had been his intention when he first repaired to Cambridge, but the young man of twenty-three saw many things differently from the boy of sixteen. The service of God was still as much as ever the aim of his existence, but he now thought that not all service was church service. How far he had become consciously alienated from the Church's creed it is difficult to say. He was able, at all events, to subscribe the Articles on taking his degree, and no trace of Arianism appears in his writings for many years. As late as 1641 he speaks of "the tri-personal Deity." Curiously enough, indeed, the ecclesiastical freethought of the day was then almost entirely confined to moderate Royalists, Hales, Chillingworth, Falkland. But he must have disapproved of the Church's discipline, for he disapproved of all discipline. He would not put himself in the position of those Irish clergymen whom Strafford frightened out of their conscientious convictions by reminding them of their canonical obedience. This was undoubtedly what he meant when he afterwards wrote: "Perceiving that he who would take orders must subscribe slave." Speaking of himself a little further on as "Church-outed by the prelates," he implies that he would not have refused orders if he could have had them on his own terms. As regarded Milton personally this attitude was reasonable, he had a right to feel himself above the restraints of mere formularies; but he spoke unadvisedly if he meant to contend that a priest should be invested with the freedom of a Prophet. His words, however, must be taken in connection with the peculiar circumstances of the time. It was an era of High Church reaction, which was fast becoming a shameful persecution. The two moderate prelates, Abbot and Williams, had for years been in disgrace, and the Church was ruled by the well-meaning, but sour, despotic, meddlesome bigot whom wise King James long refused to make a bishop because "he could not see when matters were well." But if Laud was infatuated as a statesman, he was astute as a manager; he had the Church completely under his control, he was fast filling it with his partisans and creatures, he was working it for every end which Milton most abhorred, and was, in particular, allying it with a king who in 1632 had governed three years without a Parliament. The mere thought that he must call this hierarch his Father in God, the mere foresight that he might probably come into collision with him, and that if he did his must be the fate of the earthen vessel, would alone have sufficed to deter Milton from entering the Church.
Even so resolute a spirit as Milton's could hardly contemplate the relinquishment of every definite calling in life without misgiving, and his friends could hardly let it pass without remonstrance. There exists in his hand the draft of a letter of reply to the verbal admonition of some well-wisher, to whom he evidently feels that he owes deference. His friend seems to have thought that he was yielding to the allurements of aimless study, neglecting to return as service what he had absorbed as knowledge. Milton pleads that his motive must be higher than the love of lettered ease, for that alone could never overcome the incentives that urge him to action. "Why should not all the hopes that forward youth and vanity are afledge with, together with gain, pride, and ambition, call me forward more powerfully than a poor, regardless, and unprofitable sin of curiosity should be able to withhold?" And what of the "desire of honour and repute and immortal fame seated in the breast of every true scholar?" That his correspondent may the better understand him, he encloses a "Petrarchean sonnet," recently composed, on his twenty-third birthday, not one of his best, but precious as the first of his frequent reckonings with himself:—
"How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth, Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year! My hasting days fly on with full career; But my late spring no bud or blossom shew'th. Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth, That I to manhood am arrived so near; And inward ripeness doth much less appear, Than some more timely-happy spirits indu'th. Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow, It shall be still in strictest measure even To that same lot, however mean or high, Towards which Time leads me, and the Will of Heaven. All is, if I have grace to use it so, As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye."
The poetical temperament is especially liable to misgiving and despondency, and from this Milton evidently was not exempt. Yet he is the same Milton who proclaimed a quarter of a century afterwards—
"I argue not Against Heaven's hand or will, nor bate a jot Of heart or hope; but still bear up and steer Right onward."
There is something very fine in the steady resolution with which, after so fully admitting to himself that his promise is yet unfulfilled, and that appearances are against him, he recurs to his purpose, frankly owning the while that the gift he craves is Heaven's, and his only the application. He had received a lesson against over-confidence in the failure of his solitary effort up to this time to achieve a work on a large scale. To the eighth and last stanza of his poem, "The Passion of Christ," is appended the note: "This subject the author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished." It nevertheless begins nobly, but soon deviates into conceits, bespeaking a fatigued imagination. The "Hymn on the Nativity," on the other hand, begins with two stanzas of far-fetched prettiness, and goes on ringing and thundering through strophes of ever-increasing grandeur, until the sweetness of Virgin and Child seem in danger of being swallowed up in the glory of Christianity; when suddenly, by an exquisite turn, the poet sinks back into his original key, and finally harmonizes his strain by the divine repose of concluding picture worthy of Correggio:—
"But see, the Virgin blest Hath laid the Babe to rest; Time is our tedious song should here have ending; Heaven's youngest-teemed star Hath fixed her polished car, Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending; And all about the courtly stable Bright harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable."
In some degree this magnificent composition loses force in our day from its discordance with modern sentiment. We look upon religions as members of the same family, and are more interested in their resemblances than their antagonisms. Moloch and Dagon themselves appear no longer as incarnate fiends, but as the spiritual counterparts of antediluvian monsters; and Milton's treatment of the Olympian deities jars upon us who remember his obligations to them. If the most Hebrew of modern poets, he still owed more to Greece than to Palestine. How living a thing Greek mythology was to him from his earliest years appears from his college vacation exercise of 1628, where there are lines which, if one did not know to be Milton's, one would declare to be Keats's. Among his other compositions by the time of his quitting Cambridge are to be named the superb verses, "At a Solemn Music," perhaps the most perfect expression of his ideal of song; the pretty but over fanciful lines, "On a fair Infant dying of a cough;" and the famous panegyric of Shakespeare, a fancy made impressive by dignity and sonority of utterance.
With such earnest of a true vocation, Milton betook himself to retirement at Horton, a village between Colnbrook and Datchet, in the south-eastern corner of Buckinghamshire, county of nightingales, where his father had settled himself on his retirement from business. This retreat of the elder Milton may be supposed to have taken place in 1632, for in that year he took his clerk into partnership, probably devolving the larger part of the business upon him. But it may have been earlier, for in 1626 Milton tells Diodati—
"Nos quoque lucus habet vicina consitus ulmo, Atque suburbani nobilis umbra loci."
And in a college declamation, which cannot have been later than 1632, he "calls to witness the groves and rivers, and the beloved village elms, under which in the last past summer I remember having had supreme delight with the Muses, when I too, among rural scenes and remote forests, seemed as if I could have grown and vegetated through a hidden eternity."
Doctor Johnson deemed "the knowledge of nature half the task of a poet," but not until he had written all his poetry did he repair to the Highlands. Milton allows natural science and the observation of the picturesque no place among the elements of a poetical self-education, and his practice differs entirely from that which would in our day be adopted by an aspirant happy in equal leisure. Such an one would probably have seen no inconsiderable portion of the globe ere he could resolve to bury himself in a tiny hamlet for five years. The poems which Milton composed at Horton owe so much of their beauty to his country residence as to convict him of error in attaching no more importance to the influences of scenery. But this very excellence suggests that the spell of scenery need not be exactly proportioned to its grandeur.
The beauties of Horton are characterized by Professor Masson as those of "rich, teeming, verdurous flat, charming by its appearance of plenty, and by the goodly show of wood along the fields and pastures, in the nooks where the houses nestle, and everywhere in all directions to the sky-bound verge of the landscape." He also notices "the canal-like abundance and distribution of water. There are rivulets brimming through the meadows among rushes and water-plants; and by the very sides of the ways, in lieu of ditches, there are slow runnels, in which one can see the minnows swimming." The distant keep of Windsor, "bosomed high in tufted trees," is the only visible object that appeals to the imagination, or speaks of anything outside of rural peace and contentment. Milton's house, as Todd was informed by the vicar of the parish, stood till about 1798. If so, however, it is very remarkable that the writer of an account of Horton in the Gentleman's Magazine for August, 1791, who speaks of Milton with veneration, and transcribes his mother's epitaph, does not allude to the existence of his house. Its site is traditionally identified with that of Berkyn Manor, near the church, and an old pigeon-house is asserted to be a remnant of the original building. The elder Milton was no doubt merely the tenant; his landlord is said to have been the Earl of Bridgewater, but as there is no evidence of the Earl having possessed property in Horton, the statement may be merely an inference from Milton's poetical connection with the family. If not Bridgewater, the landlord was probably Bulstrode, the lord of the manor, and chief personage in the village. The Miltons still kept a footing in the metropolis. Christopher Milton, on his admission to the Inner Temple in September, 1632, is described as second son of John Milton of London, and subsequent legal proceedings disclose that the father, with the aid of his partner, was still doing business as a scrivener in 1637. It may be guessed that the veteran cit would not be sorry to find himself occasionally back in town. What with social exclusiveness, political and religious controversy, and uncongeniality of tastes, the Miltons' country circle of acquaintance was probably narrow. After five years of country life the younger Milton at all events thought seriously of taking refuge in an Inn of Court, "wherever there is a pleasant and shady walk," and tells Diodati, "Where I am now I live obscurely and in a cramped manner." He had only just made the acquaintance of his distinguished neighbour, Sir Henry Wotton, Provost of Eton, by the beginning of 1638, though it appears that he was previously acquainted with John Hales.
Milton's five years at Horton were nevertheless the happiest of his life. It must have been an unspeakable relief to him to be at length emancipated from compulsory exercises, and to build up his mind without nod or beck from any quarter. For these blessings he was chiefly indebted to his father, whose industry and prudence had procured his independence and his rural retirement, and whose tender indulgence and noble confidence dispensed him from what most would have deemed the reasonable condition that he should at least earn his own living. "I will not," he exclaims to his father, "praise thee for thy fulfilment of the ordinary duties of a parent, my debt is heavier (me poscunt majora). Thou hast neither made me a merchant nor a barrister":—
"Neque enim, pater, ire jubebas Qua via lata patet, qua pronior area lucri, Certaque condendi fulget spes aurea nummi: Nec rapis ad leges, male custoditaque gentis Jura, nec insulsis damnas clamoribus aures."
The stroke at the subserviency of the lawyers to the Crown (male custodita jura gentis) would be appreciated by the elder Milton, nor can we doubt that the old Puritan fully approved his son's resilience from a church denied by Arminianism and prelacy. He would not so easily understand the dedication of a life to poetry, and the poem from which the above citation is taken seems to have been partly composed to smooth his repugnance away. He was soon to have stronger proofs that his son had not mistaken his vocation: it would be pleasant to be assured that the old man was capable of valuing "Comus" and "Lycidas" at their worth. The circumstances under which "Comus" was produced, and its subsequent publication with the extorted consent of the author, show that Milton did not wholly want encouragement and sympathy. The insertion of his lines on Shakespeare in the Second Folio (1632) also denotes some reputation as a wit. In the main, however, remote from urban circles and literary cliques, with few correspondents and no second self in sweetheart or friend, he must have led a solitary intellectual life, alone with his great ambition, and probably pitied by his acquaintance. "The world," says Emerson to the Poet, "is full of renunciations and apprenticeships, and this is thine; thou must pass for a fool and a churl for a long season. This is the screen and sheath in which Pan has protected his well-beloved flower." The special nature of Milton's studies cannot now be exactly ascertained. Of his manner of studying he informs Diodati, "No delay, no rest, no care or thought almost of anything holds me aside until I reach the end I am making for, and round off, as it were, some great period of my studies." Of his object he says: "God has instilled into me, at all events, a vehement love of the beautiful. Not with so much labour is Ceres said to have sought Proserpine as I am wont day and night to seek for the idea of the beautiful through all the forms and faces of things, and to follow it leading me on as with certain assured traces." We may be sure that he read the classics of all the languages which he understood. His copies of Euripides, Pindar, Aratus, and Lycophron, are, or have been recently, extant, with marginal notes, proving that he weighed what he read. A commonplace book contains copious extracts from historians, and he tells Diodati that he has read Greek history to the fall of Constantinople. He speaks of having occasionally repaired to London for instruction in mathematics and music. His own programme, promulgated eight years later, but without doubt perfectly appropriate to his Horton period, names before all else—"Devout prayer to the Holy Spirit, that can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and send out His Seraphim with the hallowed fire of His altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom He pleases. To this must be added select reading, steady observation, and insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs, till which in some measure be compassed, I refuse not to sustain this expectation." This is not the ideal of a mere scholar, as Mark Paulson thinks he at one time was, and would wish him to have remained. "Affairs" are placed fully on a level with "arts." Milton was kept from politics in his youth, not by any notion of their incompatibility with poetry; but by the more cogent arguments at their command "under whose inquisitious and tyrannical duncery no free and splendid wit can flourish."
Milton's poetical development is, in many respects, exceptional. Most poets would no doubt, in theory, agree with Landor, "febriculis non indicari vires, impatientiam ab ignorantia non differre," but their faith will not be proved by lack of works, as Landor's precept and example require. He, who like Milton lisps in numbers usually sings freely in adolescence; he who is really visited by a true inspiration generally depends on mood rather than on circumstance. Milton, on the other hand, until fairly embarked on his great epic, was comparatively an unproductive, and literally an occasional poet. Most of his pieces, whether English or Latin, owe their existence to some impulse from without: "Comus" to the solicitation of a patron, "Lycidas" to the death of a friend. The "Allegro" and the "Penseroso" seem almost the only two written at the urgency of an internal impulse; and perhaps, if we knew their history, we should discover that they too were prompted by extraneous suggestion or provoked into being by accident. Such is the way with Court poets like Dryden and Claudian; it is unlike the usual procedure of Milton's spiritual kindred. Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, write incessantly; whatever care they may bestow upon composition, the impulse to produce is never absent. With Milton it is commonly dormant or ineffectual; he is always studying, but the fertility of his mind bears no apparent proportion to the pains devoted to its cultivation. He is not, like Wordsworth, labouring at a great work whose secret progress fills him with a majestic confidence; or, like Coleridge, dreaming of works which he lacks the energy to undertake; or, save once, does he seem to have felt with Keats:—
"Fears that I may cease to be Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, Before that books, in high piled charactery, Hold in rich garners the full ripened grain."
He neither writes nor wishes to write; he simply studies, piling up the wood on the altar, and conscious of the power to call down fire from Heaven when he will. There is something sublime in this assured confidence; yet its wisdom is less evident than its grandeur. "No man," says Shelley, "can say, 'I will compose poetry.'" If he cannot say this of himself to-day, still less can he say it of himself to-morrow. He cannot tell whether the illusions of youth will forsake him wholly; whether the joy of creation will cease to thrill; what unpropitious blight he may encounter in an enemy or a creditor, or harbour in an uncongenial mate. Milton, no doubt, entirely meant what he said when he told Diodati: "I am letting my wings grow and preparing to fly, but my Pegasus has not yet feathers enough to soar aloft in the fields of air." But the danger of this protracted preparation was shown by his narrow escape from poetical shipwreck when the duty of the patriot became paramount to that of the poet. The Civil War confounded his anticipations of leisurely composition, and but for the disguised blessing of his blindness, the mountain of his attainment might have been Pisgah rather than Parnassus.
It is in keeping with the infrequency of Milton's moods of overmastering inspiration, and the strength of will which enabled him to write steadily or abstain from writing at all, that his early compositions should be, in general, so much more correct than those of other English poets of the first rank. The childish bombast of "Titus Andronicus," the commonplace of Wordsworth, the frequent inanity of the youthful Coleridge and the youthful Byron, Shelley's extravagance, Keats's cockneyism, Tennyson's mawkishness, find no counterpart in Milton's early compositions. All these great writers, though the span of some of them was but short, lived long enough to blush for much of what they had in the days of their ignorance taken for poetry. The mature Milton had no cause to be ashamed of anything written by the immature Milton, reasonable allowance being made for the inevitable infection of contemporary false taste. As a general rule, the youthful exuberance of a Shakespeare would be a better sign; faults, no less than beauties, often indicate the richness of the soil. But Milton was born to confute established opinions. Among other divergencies from usage, he was at this time a rare example of an English poet whose faculty was, in large measure, to be estimated by his essays in Latin verse. England had up to this time produced no distinguished Latin poet, though Scotland had: and had Milton's Latin poems been accessible, they would certainly have occupied a larger place in the estimation of his contemporaries than his English compositions. Even now they contribute no trifling addition to his fame, though they cannot, even as exercises, be placed in the highest rank. There are two roads to excellence in Latin verse—to write it as a scholar, or to write it as a Roman. England has once, and only once, produced a poet so entirely imbued with the Roman spirit that Latin seemed to come to him like the language of some prior state of existence, rather remembered than learned. Landor's Latin verse is hence greatly superior to Milton's, not, perhaps, in scholarly elegance, but in absolute vitality. It would be poor praise to commend it for fidelity to the antique, for it is the antique. Milton stands at the head of the numerous class who, not being actually born Romans, have all but made themselves so. "With a great sum obtained I this freedom." His Latin compositions are delightful, but precisely from the qualities least characteristic of his genius as an English poet. Sublimity and imagination are infrequent; what we have most commonly to admire are grace, ease, polish, and felicitous phrases rather concise in expression than weighty with matter. Of these merits the elegies to his friend Diodati, and the lines addressed to his father and to Manso, are admirable examples. The "Epitaphium Damonis" is in a higher strain, and we shall have to recur to it.
Except for his formal incorporation with the University of Oxford, by proceeding M.A. there in 1635, and the death of his mother on April 3, 1637, Milton's life during his residence at Horton, as known to us, is entirely in his writings. These comprise the "Sonnet to the Nightingale," "L'Allegro," "Il Penseroso," all probably written in 1633; "Arcades," probably, and "Comus" certainly written in 1634; "Lycidas" in 1637. The first three only are, or seem to be, spontaneous overflowings of the poetic mind: the others are composed in response to external invitations, and in two instances it is these which stand highest in poetic desert. Before entering on any criticism, it will be convenient to state the originating circumstances of each piece.
"Arcades" and "Comus" both owe their existence to the musician Henry Lawes, unless the elder Milton's tenancy of his house from the Earl of Bridgewater can be accepted as a fact. Both were written for the Bridgewater family, and if Milton felt no special devotion to this house, his only motive could have been to aid the musical performance of his friend Henry Lawes, whose music is discommended by Burney, but who, Milton declares:
"First taught our English music how to span Words with just note and accent."
Masques were then the order of the day, especially after the splendid exhibition of the Inns of Court in honour of the King and Queen, February, 1634. Lawes, as a Court musician, took a leading part in this representation, and became in request on similar occasions. The person intended to be honoured by the "Arcades" was the dowager Countess of Derby, mother-in-law of the Earl of Bridgewater, whose father, Lord Keeper Egerton, she had married in 1600. The aged lady, to whom more than forty years before Spenser had dedicated his "Teares of the Muses," and who had ever since been an object of poetic flattery and homage, lived at Harefield, about four miles from Uxbridge; and there the "Arcades" were exhibited, probably in 1634. Milton's melodious verses were only one feature in a more ample entertainment. That they pleased we may be sure, for we find him shortly afterwards engaged on a similar undertaking of much greater importance, commissioned by the Bridgewater family. In those days Milton had no more of the Puritanic aversion to the theatre—
"Then to the well-trod stage anon, If Jonson's learned sock be on, Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child, Warble his native wood-notes wild,"
than to the pomps and solemnities of cathedral ritual:—
"But let my due feet never fail To walk the studious cloisters pale, And love the high-embowed roof, With antique pillars massy proof, And storied windows richly dight, Casting a dim religious light: There let the pealing organ blow, To the full-voic'd quire below, In service high and anthems clear, As may with sweetness through mine ear Dissolve me into ecstacies, And bring all heaven before mine eyes."
He therefore readily fell in with Lawes's proposal to write a masque to celebrate Lord Bridgewater's assumption of the Lord Presidency of the Welsh Marches. The Earl had entered upon the office in October, 1633, and "Comus" was written some time between this and the following September. Singular coincidences frequently linked Milton's fate with the north-west Midlands, from which his grandmother's family and his brother-in-law and his third wife sprung, whither the latter retired, where his friend Diodati lived, and his friend King died, and where now the greatest of his early works was to be represented in the time-hallowed precincts of Ludlow Castle, where it was performed on Michaelmas night, in 1634. If, as we should like to think, he was himself present, the scene must have enriched his memory and his mind. The castle—in which Prince Arthur had spent with his Spanish bride the six months of life which alone remained to him, in which eighteen years before the performance Charles the First had been installed Prince of Wales with extraordinary magnificence, and which, curiously enough, was to be the residence of the Cavalier poet, Butler—would be a place of resort for English tourists, if it adorned any country but their own. The dismantled keep is still an imposing object, lowering from a steep hill around whose base the curving Teme alternately boils and gushes with tumultuous speed. The scene within must have realized the lines in the "Allegro ":
"Pomp, and feast, and revelry, Mask and antique pageantry, Where throngs of knights and barons bold, In weeds of peace high triumphs hold, With store of ladies, whose bright eyes Rain influence."
Lawes himself acted the attendant Spirit, the Lady and the Brothers were performed by Lord Bridgewater's youthful children, whose own nocturnal bewilderment in Haywood Forest, could we trust a tradition, doubted by the critics, but supported by the choice of the neighbourhood of Severn as the scene of the drama, had suggested his theme to Milton. He is evidently indebted for many incidents and ideas to Peele's "Old Wives' Tale," and the "Comus" of Erycius Puteanus; but there is little morality in the former production and little fancy in the latter. The peculiar blending of the highest morality with the noblest imagination is as much Milton's own as the incomparable diction. "I," wrote Sir Henry Wootton on receiving a copy of the anonymous edition printed by Lawes in 1637, "should much commend the tragical part if the lyrical did not ravish me with a certain Dorique delicacy in your songs and odes, whereunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our language." "Although not openly acknowledged by the author," says Lawes in his apology for printing prefixed to the poem, "it is a legitimate offspring, so lovely and so much desired that the often copying of it hath tired my pen to give my several friends satisfaction, and brought me to a necessity of producing it to the public view." The publication is anonymous, and bears no mark of Milton's participation except a motto, which none but the author could have selected, intimating a fear that publication is premature. The title is simply "A Maske presented at Ludlow Castle," nor did the piece receive the name of "Comus" until after Milton's death.
It has been remarked that one of the most characteristic traits of Milton's genius, until he laid hand to "Paradise Lost," is the dependence of his activity upon promptings from without. "Comus" once off his mind, he gives no sign of poetical life for three years, nor would have given any then but for the inaccurate chart or unskilful seamanship which proved fatal to his friend Edward King, August 10, 1637. King, a Fellow of Milton's college, had left Chester, on a voyage to Ireland, in the stillest summer weather:—
"The air was calm, and on the level brine Sleek Panope and all her sisters played."
Suddenly the vessel struck on a rock, foundered, and all on board perished except some few who escaped in a boat. Of King it was reported that he refused to save himself, and sank to the abyss with hands folded in prayer. Great sympathy was excited among his friends at Cambridge, enough at least to evoke a volume of thirty-six elegies in various languages, but not enough to inspire any of the contributors, except Milton, with a poetical thought, while many are so ridiculous that quotation would be an affront to King's memory. But the thirty-sixth is "Lycidas." The original manuscript remains, and is dated in November. Of the elegy's relation to Milton's biography it may be said that it sums up the two influences which had been chiefly moulding his mind of late years, the natural influences of which he had been the passive recipient during his residence at Horton, and the political and theological passion with which he was becoming more and more inspired by the circumstances of the time. By 1637 the country had been eight years without a parliament, and the persecution of Puritans had attained its acme. In that year Laud's new Episcopalian service book was forced, or rather was attempted to be forced, upon Scotland; Prynne lost his ears; and Bishop Williams was fined eighteen thousand pounds and ordered to be imprisoned during the King's pleasure. Hence the striking, if incongruous, introduction of "The pilot of the Galilean lake," to bewail, in the character of a shepherd, the drowned swain in conjunction with Triton, Hippotades, and Camus. "The author," wrote Milton afterwards, "by occasion, foretells the ruin of the corrupted clergy, then in their height." It was a Parthian dart, for the volume was printed at the University Press in 1638, probably a little before his departure for Italy.
The "Penseroso" and the "Allegro," notwithstanding that each piece is the antithesis of the other, are complementary rather than contrary, and may be, in a sense, regarded as one poem, whose theme is the praise of the reasonable life. It resembles one of those pictures in which the effect is gained by contrasted masses of light and shade, but each is more nicely mellowed and interfused with the qualities of the other than it lies within the resources of pictorial skill to effect. Mirth has an undertone of gravity, and melancholy of cheerfulness. There is no antagonism between the states of mind depicted; and no rational lover, whether of contemplation or of recreation, would find any difficulty in combining the two. The limpidity of the diction is even more striking than its beauty. Never were ideas of such dignity embodied in verse so easy and familiar, and with such apparent absence of effort. The landscape-painting is that of the seventeenth century, absolutely true in broad effects, sometimes ill-defined and even inaccurate in minute details. Some of these blemishes are terrible in nineteenth-century eyes, accustomed to the photography of our Brownings and Patmores. Milton would probably have made light of them, and perhaps we owe him some thanks for thus practically refuting the heresy that inspiration implies infallibility. Yet the poetry of his blindness abounds with proof that he had made excellent use of his eyes while he had them, and no part of his poetry wants instances of subtle and delicate observation worthy of the most scrutinizing modern:—
"Thee, chantress, oft the woods among, I woo, to hear thy evensong; And, missing thee, I walk unseen On the dry, smooth-shaven green."
"The song of the nightingale," remarks Peacock, "ceases about the time the grass is mown." The charm, however, is less in such detached beauties, however exquisite, than in the condensed opulence—"every epithet a text for a canto," says Macaulay—and in the general impression of "plain living and high thinking," pursued in the midst of every charm of nature and every refinement of culture, combining the ideal of Horton with the ideal of Cambridge.
"Lycidas" is far more boldly conventional, not merely in the treatment of landscape, but in the general conception and machinery. An initial effort of the imagination is required to feel with the poet; it is not wonderful that no such wing bore up the solid Johnson. Talk of Milton and his fellow-collegian as shepherds! "We know that they never drove afield, and that they had no flocks to batten." There is, in fact, according to Johnson, neither nature nor truth nor art nor pathos in the poem, for all these things are inconsistent with the introduction of a shepherd of souls in the character of a shepherd of sheep. A nineteenth-century reader, it may be hoped, finds no more difficulty in idealizing Edward King as a shepherd than in personifying the ocean calm as "sleek Panope and all her sisters," which, to be sure, may have been a trouble to Johnson. If, however, Johnson is deplorably prosaic, neither can we agree with Pattison that "in 'Lycidas' we have reached the high-water mark of English Poesy and of Milton's own production." Its innumerable beauties are rather exquisite than magnificent. It is an elegy, and cannot, therefore, rank as high as an equally consummate example of epic, lyric, or dramatic art. Even as elegy it is surpassed by the other great English masterpiece, "Adonais," in fire and grandeur. There is no incongruity in "Adonais" like the introduction of "the pilot of the Galilean lake"; its invective and indignation pour naturally out of the subject; their expression is not, as in "Lycidas," a splendid excrescence. There is no such example of sustained eloquence in "Lycidas" as the seven concluding stanzas of "Adonais" beginning, "Go thou to Rome." But the balance is redressed by the fact that the beauties of "Adonais" are the inimitable. Shelley's eloquence is even too splendid for elegy. It wants the dainty thrills and tremors of subtle versification, and the witcheries of verbal magic in which "Lycidas" is so rich—"the opening eyelids of the morn;" "smooth-sliding Mincius, crowned with vocal reeds;" Camus's garment, "inwrought with figures dim;" "the great vision of the guarded mount;" "the tender stops of various quills;" "with eager thought warbling his Doric lay." It will be noticed that these exquisite phrases have little to do with Lycidas himself, and it is a fact not to be ignored, that though Milton and Shelley doubtless felt more deeply than Dryden when he composed his scarcely inferior threnody on Anne Killegrew, whom he had never seen, both might have found subjects of grief that touched them more nearly. Shelley tells us frankly that "in another's woe he wept his own." We cannot doubt of whom Milton was thinking when he wrote:
"Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise, (That last infirmity of noble mind) To scorn delights, and live laborious days; But the fair guerdon when we hope to find, And think to burst out into sudden blaze, Comes the blind Fury with the abhorred shears, And slits the thin-spun life. 'But not the praise,' Phoebus replied, and touched my trembling ears; 'Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil, Nor in the glistering foil Set off to the world, nor in broad rumour lies; But lives and spreads aloft by those pure eyes, And perfect witness of all-judging Jove; As he pronounces lastly on each deed, much fame in heaven expect thy meed.'"
"Comus," the richest fruit of Milton's early genius, is the epitome of the man at the age at which he wrote it. It bespeaks the scholar and idealist, whose sacred enthusiasm is in some danger of contracting a taint of pedantry for want of acquaintance with men and affairs. The Elder Brother is a prig, and his dialogues with his junior reveal the same solemn insensibility to the humorous which characterizes the kindred genius of Wordsworth, and would have provoked the kindly smile of Shakespeare. It is singular to find the inevitable flaw of "Paradise Lost" prefigured here, and the wicked enchanter made the real hero of the piece. These defects are interesting, because they represent the nature of Milton as it was then, noble and disinterested to the height of imagination, but self-assertive, unmellowed, angular. They disappear entirely when he expatiates in the regions of exalted fancy, as in the introductory discourse of the Spirit, and the invocation to Sabrina. They recur when he moralizes; and his morality is too interwoven with the texture of his piece to be other than obtrusive. He fatigues with virtue, as Lucan fatigues with liberty; in both instances the scarcely avoidable error of a young preacher. What glorious morality it is no one need be told; nor is there any poem in the language where beauties of thought, diction, and description spring up more thickly than in "Comus." No drama out of Shakespeare has furnished such a number of the noblest familiar quotations. It is, indeed, true that many of these jewels are fetched from the mines of other poets: great as Milton's obligations, to Nature were, his obligations to books were greater. But he has made all his own by the alchemy of his genius, and borrows little but to improve. The most remarkable coincidence is with a piece certainly unknown to him—Calderon's "Magico Prodigioso," which was first acted in 1637, the year of the publication of "Comus," a great year in the history of the drama, for the "Cid" appeared in it also. The similarity of the situations of Justina tempted by the Demon, and the Lady in the power of Comus, has naturally begotten a like train of thought in both poets.
"Comus. Nay, Lady, sit; if I but wave this wand, Your nerves are all chained up in alabaster, And you a statue, or, as Daphne was, Root-bound, that fled Apollo.
Lady. Fool, do not boast Thou can'st not touch the freedom of my mind With all thy charms, although this corporal rind Thou hast immanacled, while Heaven sees good."
"Justina. Thought is not in my power, but action is. I will not move my foot to follow thee.
Demon. But a far mightier wisdom than thine own Exerts itself within thee, with such power Compelling thee to that which it inclines That it shall force thy step; how wilt thou then Resist, Justina?
Justina. By my free will.
Demon. I Must force thy will.
Justina. It is invincible. It were not free if thou had'st power upon it."
It must be admitted that where the Spaniard and the Englishman come directly into competition the former excels. The dispute between the Lady and Comus may be, as Johnson says it is, "the most animating and affecting scene in the drama;" but, tried by the dramatic test which Calderon bears so well, it is below the exigencies and the possibilities of the subject. Nor does the poetry here, quite so abundantly as in the other scenes in this unrivalled "suite of speeches," atone for the deficiencies of the play.
It is a just remark of Pattison's that "in a mind of the consistent texture of Milton's, motives are secretly influential before they emerge in consciousness." In September, 1637, Milton had complained to Diodati of his cramped situation in the country, and talked of taking chambers in London. Within a few months we find this vague project matured into a settled scheme of foreign travel. One tie to home had been severed by the death of his mother in the preceding April; and his father was to find another prop of his old age in his second son, Christopher, about to marry and reside with him. "Lycidas" had appeared meanwhile, or was to appear, and its bold denunciation of the Romanizing clergy might well offend the ruling powers. The atmosphere at home was, at all events, difficult breathing for an impotent patriot; and Milton may have come to see what we so clearly see in "Comus," that his asperities and limitations needed contact with the world. Why speak of the charms of Italy, in themselves sufficient allurement to a poet and scholar? His father, trustful and unselfish as of old, found the considerable sum requisite for a prolonged foreign tour; and in April, 1638, Milton, provided with excellent introductions from Sir Henry Wootton and others, seeks the enrichment and renovation of his genius in Italy:—
"And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore Flames in the forehead of the morning sky."
Four times has a great English poet taken up his abode in "the paradise of exiles," and remained there until deeply imbued with the spirit of the land. The Italian residence of Byron and Shelley, of Landor and Browning, has infused into English literature a new element which has mingled with its inmost essence. Milton's brief visit could not be of equal moment. Italian letters had already done their utmost for him; and he did not stay long enough to master the secret of Italian life. A real enthusiasm for Italy's classical associations is indicated by his original purpose of extending his travels to Greece, an enterprise at that period requiring no little disdain of hardship and peril. But it would have been an anachronism if he could have contemplated the comprehensive and scientific scheme of self-culture by Italian influences of every kind which, a hundred and fifty years later, was conceived and executed by Goethe. At the time of Milton's visit Italian letters and arts sloped midway in their descent from the Renaissance to the hideous but humorous rococo so graphically described by Vernon Lee. Free thought had perished along with free institutions in the preceding century, and as a consequence, though the physical sciences still numbered successful cultivators, originality of mind was all but extinct. Things, nevertheless, wore a gayer aspect than of late. The very completeness of the triumph of secular and spiritual despotism had made them less suspicious, surly, and austere. Spanish power was visibly decaying. The long line of zelanti Popes had come to an end; and it was thought that if the bosom of the actual incumbent could be scrutinized, no little complacency in Swedish victories over the Faith's defenders would be found. An atmosphere of toleration was diffusing itself, bigotry was imperceptibly getting old-fashioned, the most illustrious victim of the Inquisition was to be well-nigh the last. If the noble and the serious could not be permitted, there was no ban upon the amiable and the frivolous: never had the land been so full of petty rhymesters, antiquarian triflers, and gregarious literati, banded to play at authorship in academies, like the seven Swabians leagued to kill the hare. For the rest, the Italy of Milton's day, its superstition and its scepticism, and the sophistry that strove to make the two as one; its monks and its bravoes; its processions and its pantomimes; its cult of the Passion and its cult of Paganism; the opulence of its past and the impotence of its present; will be found depicted by sympathetic genius in the second volume of "John Inglesant."
Milton arrived in Paris about the end of April or beginning of May. Of his short stay there it is only known that he was received with distinction by the English Ambassador, Lord Scudamore, and owed to him an introduction to one of the greatest men in Europe, Hugo Grotius, then residing at Paris as envoy from Christina of Sweden. Travelling by way of Nice, Genoa, Leghorn, and Pisa, he arrived about the beginning of August at Florence; where, probably by the aid of good recommendations, he "immediately contracted the acquaintance of many noble and learned," and doubtless found, with the author of "John Inglesant," that "nothing can be more delightful than the first few days of life in Italy in the company of polished and congenial men." The Florentine academies, he implies answered one of the purposes of modern clubs, and enabled the traveller to multiply one good introduction into many. He especially mentions Gaddi, Dati, Frescobaldi, Coltellini, Bonmattei, Chimentelli, and Francini, of all of whom a full account will be found in Masson. Two of them, Dati and Francini, have linked their names with Milton's by their encomiums on him inserted in his works. The key-note of these surprising productions is struck by Francini when he remarks that the heroes of England are accounted in Italy superhuman. If this is so, Dati may be justified in comparing a young man on his first and last foreign tour to the travelled Ulysses; and Francini in declaring that Thames rivals Helicon in virtue of Milton's Latin poems, which alone the panegyrist could read. Truly, as Smollett says, Italian is the language of compliments. If ludicrous, however, the flattery is not nauseous, for it is not wholly insincere. Amid all conventional exaggerations there is an under-note of genuine feeling, showing that the writers really had received a deep impression from Milton, deeper than they could well explain or understand. The bow drawn at a venture did not miss the mark, but it is a curious reflection that those of his performances which would really have justified their utmost enthusiasm were hieroglyphical to them. Such of his literary exercises as they could understand consisted, he says, of "some trifles which I had in memory composed at under twenty or thereabout; and other things which I had shifted, in scarcity of books and conveniences, to patch up among them." The former class of compositions may no doubt be partly identified with his college declamations and Latin verses. What the "things patched up among them" may have been is unknown. It is curious enough that his acquaintance with the Italian literati should have been the means of preserving one of their own compositions, the "Tina" of Antonio Malatesti, a series of fifty sonnets on a mistress, sent to him in manuscript by the author, with a dedication to the illustrissimo signore et padrone osservatissimo. The pieces were not of a kind to be approved by the laureate of chastity, and annoyance at the implied slur upon his morals may account for his omission of Malatesti from the list of his Italian acquaintance. He carried the MS. home, nevertheless, and a copy of it, finding its way back to Italy in the eighteenth century, restored Malatesti's fifty indiscretions to the Italian Parnassus. That his intercourse with men of culture involved freedom of another sort we learn from himself. "I have sate among their learned men," he says, "and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom as they supposed England was, while they themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning amongst them was brought, that this was it which had damped the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been written there now these many years but flattery and fustian." Italy had never acquiesced in her degradation, though for a century and a half to come she could only protest in such conventicles as those frequented by Milton.